CEDAR HILLS – Summertime Shakespeare has become a mainstay of Utah theater, but in these “unprecedented times” (a phrase so ubiquitous it has almost lost all meaning) the ability to see a live show has become a rare treat. Attending Creekside Theatre Fest’s Twelfth Night in the open air of Heritage Park in Cedar Hills was just such a treat. Though the production was not perfect in many respects, it had quality performances, interesting music, and beautiful costumes.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed comedies. The show has many of the tropes that the Bard has become known for: twins, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, love triangles, battles of wit, and at least one alcoholic. The story follows Viola, who has survived a shipwreck, as she pretends to be the young boy Cesario. She works under the employ of Orsino, who sends her as a messenger to Olivia to profess his love. Olivia is tired of Orsino’s overtures, but falls for Cesario/Viola, who has fallen for Orsino. In the mean time, some of Olivia’s friends, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (who is in love with Olivia as well), team up with her maidservant, Maria, to play a joke on another servant, Malvolio, by making him think Olivia has fallen for him. With all of these love triangles in place and identities begging to be mistaken, the situation is ripe for Viola’s twin, Sebastian, to show up after surviving the same shipwreck as his twin. Of course he is a perfect match for his sister in drag, and the concept of twins must have been mind-boggling back then, so more confusion ensues.
Successfully performing a Shakespearean comedy in the modern era comes down to two main things: communication and interpretation. Communicating such a complex plot using nothing but outdated and heightened language is no small feat, but the actors in CTF’s production, along with director Chris Hults, kept things moving along without sacrificing clarity. Forgoing the current trend of resetting the show in a different era, the production went with a fairly traditional Shakespearean interpretation, with beautiful Elizabethan costumes, designed by Jess Wallace. However, there were a few moments of modernization, like a character asking where he could find a Big Gulp, or another character asking an audience member on a date. While these moments were fine, they felt so sporadically included that they tended to break the flow of the show. Similarly, while Hults used the unit set to great effect, there were times when actors would enter from or exit to the audience. These instances were so random and infrequent, that it drew me out of the show. It made it difficult to focus on the action onstage when I was wondering why Feste was sitting in the audience next to me, just to have him basically walk onstage.
The performances were, overall, quite good. Jordan Nicholes (Orsino), Liza Shoell (Viola/Cesario), and Jeanelle Huff (Olivia) played well off of each other, making it easy to buy into the love triangle aspect of the plot. Jordan Nicholes especially had an excellent command of the stage and was one of the few performers I never had difficulty hearing. Shoell and Jeanelle Huff were wonderful together, and the scenes in which Olivia and Viola were testing each other’s wits were made better by the listening and responding utilized by these two actors. The trio only got better as the night went on, and their best scenes were near the end of the show, when all of the constructs and lies were crashing down. They brought a palpable energy to the stage that helped propel the show through to the end.
Another trio of talent was Kevin Peterson (Sir Toby), Spencer Hunsicker (Sir Andrew), and Rachel Nicholes (Maria). Again, it was evident that these three enjoyed working together, and their scenes were fun to watch. Hunsicker as Sir Andrew always stole whatever scene he was in and had great levels to his gullible, foppish knight. Rachel Nicholes also had a commanding presence as Maria, which is made even more impressive considering her having to overcome the drunken slapstick of the other two.
The token clown of the show, Feste, as played by Kristian Huff, is a challenging role. Huff managed well, though the script often let him down. One major challenge of clown characters from Shakespeare’s shows is that many of their lines are extemporizing on characters and manners of the court, or other such antiquated subjects that don’t always translate well. Huff had a great energy and clear delivery, but sometimes the jokes fell flat. His use of music, directed by Zach Hansen and Maren Hansen, brought a new side to the character that is often missing from other productions.
The music, which was mentioned briefly above, was actually an interesting part of the show’s atmosphere. Hults chose to have two musicians (Zach Hansen and Maren Hansen) placed center stage and to have little musical phrases underscore almost the entire show. At first, it felt just a little distracting, which was not helped by them being in a central focus point with the sound overpowering some of the actors. However, as the show progressed, I became used to the underscoring, and it really did help set the tone of the show. I also appreciated the songs sung by the actors. In many productions, directors will cut the music from the show, as it doesn’t always factor into the plot, but Hults, Zach Hansen, and Maren Hansen leaned into it. They used Kristian Huff’s Feste to great success, and there might have even been a few speeches that were turned into short songs, such as the final epilogue.
Though there were many bright spots in the performances, there were also a number of unpolished areas. There were numerous times where it was difficult to hear or understand actors, partially due to being outdoors, partially due rushed lines and unclear diction. Peterson’s Sir Toby hammed up the drunkenness a little too much in some scenes, and it led to some missed punchlines. It also felt like Trev Davis as Malvolio was underused. His melancholy, brooding portrayal didn’t really vary, which led some scenes, such as the letter reading or the cross-garter reveal, to feel like they could have used a little bit more. If I had to boil the whole production down, that feeling of wanting more would be how I felt. It was a good performance, but it felt like everyone could have gone one step further.
As a final word, Creekside Theatre Fest’s producers and organizers should be commended for their approach to public safety. There are many people who have been yearning for live theater to start up again, and many have also expressed concerns about how that can be done safely. I was impressed with CFT’s organization and preparation. Masks were worn by volunteers and audience alike, social distancing was observed, and large squares were painted on the grass so that different groups knew where to sit while still maintaining their distance. Hopefully, they will be an example to other theater groups until we return to “precedented” times.